The story behind Leeds United’s last league title begins at a time when Howard Wilkinson was in his late 20s, working towards the FA’s most advanced coaching licence and discovering an interest in scientific analysis which he carried into Elland Road in 1988.
It was part of what he jokingly calls a “misspent youth”, when much of his free time was devoted to studying ways of achieving what modern-day sport calls ‘marginal gains’. The players who trusted his ideas at Leeds drew much of their inspiration from him. Wilkinson was inspired by innovators: men like Percy Cerutty and Vince Lombardi who “weren’t scared to be different” or trust their gut.
He liked that attitude and fell into their way of thinking. “I didn’t think I was on a mission,” Wilkinson insists. “I was just interested in reading, talking about and finding out how it was people got better. The British Cycling team talk about marginal gains. I called it detail: trying to make sure that where you could gain an advantage, you did.”
His management of Leeds was based on that idea and in no small way responsible for the annus mirabilis which became the 1991-92 season.
Banning photos of the Don Revie era from Elland Road, forcing the club to step out of the shadow of those incomparable days, was a fraction of it. Wilkinson started by reviewing the diet of his squad and changing it drastically, “the very first thing I did at Leeds.” Gatorade was an emerging brand in the 1980s – he took to wearing clothes with its logo on, irrespective of how unflattering they looked – but isotonic supplements were alien to English football. Wilkinson embraced them and used renal specialists to develop drinks tailored for the bodies of individual players. His recovery methods included, unusually, food intake immediately after a game or high-intensity training.
“There was psychological barrier to that,” Wilkinson says. “A lot of players didn’t feel like drinking while they were training or eating food straight after exercise. They reckoned they’d be sick.
“Look at players now. They drink every time there’s a break in play. You see food supplements thrown onto the pitch – or a banana for the centre-half (Marcos Rojo) when Manchester United played Rostock the other week.”
Wilkinson, who had employed a statistician since managing Notts County in the early 1980s, went further again by running tests on his players before pre-season began and using resting heart rates to devise suitable training schedules. “We didn’t have technology, heart-rate monitors or anything like that, but it made sense to me. After high-intensity work, some players are going to take longer to reach their resting pulse rate than others. The platforms are different so their training needed to be different. If you don’t recognise that it becomes counter productive. You’re taking out rather than putting in.”
He traces part of his enthusiasm for performance analysis back to his time as a player at Brighton. Wilkinson, who had studied physical education at college, played on the south coast between 1966 and 1971 and often found himself at a loose end.
“I started reading sports books out of boredom,” he says. “We trained in the morning, I’d do the cryptic crossword in the Daily Mail and then what? I sat around thinking ‘this is pathetic’ so I started taking books out of the library’s sports section, some of them written by really early pioneers. One was about the power of positive thinking in golf – the idea that you don’t see the hazard, only the green. Don’t think about bunkers or the lake, just the target.”
Cerutty was an eccentric Australian athletics coach who died in 1975 while many of Wilkinson’s 1991-92 squad were still children. He published training manuals and his vision appealed.
“He was producing world champions with very unconventional methods, never heard of before,” Wilkinson says. “Percy was the originator of ‘the camp’ – the sports camp. His athletes used to live together in tents, running up and down sand dunes and eating what today would be classed as quite a sophisticated diet – dried fruits, natural foods and all that.
“Then there was Vince Lombardi. What he did with the Green Bay Packers probably has no equivalent in English terms: somewhere with 30,000 inhabitants becoming the best in their business, like a town of 30,000 winning the Premier League. He was into video analysis but the video was film.
“He literally had people with scissors and glue cutting and sticking the film to show the players after a game. It let him explain what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong. I’ve always had a lot of respect for people who are brave enough to go with their ideas. Although some would say it was a misspent youth.”
Marginal differences in fitness and performance mattered at Elland Road. The Division One title in 1992 was not the result of a heavy budget.
There was flair in Wilkinson’s squad – “some players, like Gary McAllister and Gary Speed, went onto prove that they would get in anybody’s team” – but journeymen and players sourced from non-league too. “Everyone was at their limit,” he says. “We had to be.”
Wilkinson, who is 73 and employed by the League Managers Association (LMA), regularly speaks to emerging coaches about the folly of philosophy or an undue commitment to style. He recalls being on the coaching staff at Notts County and winning promotion from Division Two in 1981 with a goalkeeper, Yugoslavian Radojko Avramovic, who “would have suited a Pep Guardiola team.”
“His orders were never to kick the ball if he could throw it to one of our players,” Wilkinson says. In a higher league, with the same tactics and Wilkinson as manager, Notts County reached Christmas in 1982 with relegation hanging over them. “We were lucky that heavy snow meant we couldn’t play for two weeks.I sat the players down and said ‘hands up, it’s my mistake, but if we carry on playing like this we’re going to get relegated.’ We all agreed we had to change and we went from the keeper not being allowed to kick the ball to the keeper not being allowed to throw it.”
Notts County stayed up but were relegated under Larry Lloyd the following season after Wilkinson left for Sheffield Wednesday. “They went back, with no disrespect, to someone whose philosophy was ‘there’s a way to play’. My philosophy was ‘there’s a way to win.’
“When people talk to me now about philosophy, I always say ‘woah, woah, woah. Are you serious about being a manager?’ Because if they are, finding a way to win is central to philosophy.
“You have to find a way to take your group, your specific group of players, and make them do whatever is needed to win. That group isn’t Barcelona, it’s not Oldham, it’s not Chesterfield and it’s not Sunderland - it’s that group standing in front of you there.
“They’re different with different strengths and you have to find out what those strengths are. You have to know what it takes to stay up or what it takes to win a league. You have to work out what they can do and how they can overachieve.”
Wilkinson spoke with his squad about the possibility of winning the title before the 1991-92 season began, if only in passing. Leeds had claimed their previous top-flight championship in 1974 and Wilkinson, who took over as manager in the second division 14 years later, promised chairman Leslie Silver that the club would have the capacity to top the Football League within five seasons.
“I did the same as I’d done previously at Sheffield Wednesday and Notts County, which was to go into a meeting with the players before a ball was kicked and discuss what we might achieve,” Wilkinson says.
“We wanted objectives for the season but objectives based in reality because players are always super-optimistic, especially after they’ve had a summer to bask in misery or glory of whatever went before.
“We had to talk in terms of what it takes to win the league because that’s part of the big picture. You anticipate that it might be part of the conversation because at some stage someone inevitably says ‘I think we can win the league’. After that, you arrive at objectives which aren’t too specific. I couldn’t have said ‘we’ll get 82 points’ (the total Leeds finished with as champions) but we agreed that the first target will be one more point than the previous season. After that you look at it again.”
Wilkinson took to breaking the season into blocks of six games, with a points target for each block. “Six games was my favourite – not too long and not too short. At the end of each block you’d bin that, forget about those points and start the next one.” He applied that approach even in the final weeks of the season when Manchester United – the only other club in the title race – began faltering, dropping points and wasting games in hand.
“It was the same in the run-in, exactly the same. I remember going in and saying ‘we’ve got five games left. If we win four and draw one, at some point Manchester United will have to win a game to win the league. We have to make that game as big as we can.’ In my humble opinion, we couldn’t do more than that. Four wins and draw would give them a problem. And it did.
“In general I tried not to let the players think about winning it the title. Que Sera Sera. The race will be won but it’s not a sprint. The race will be won by every yard and every minute, putting it in and trusting what we’ve done to be able to run the race in the first place. Trust me and stick to the plan. Run one mile at a time. By the end I couldn’t have looked at anyone and said ‘you might have given a bit more’.”
The enmity between Leeds and Manchester United was evident to Wilkinson as soon as the clubs were reunited in the same division in 1990. He and Sir Alex Ferguson worked between them to prevent crowd trouble, talking regularly about it in matchday programmes and interviews. “The message we put out was that supporting your club is great but if you think abuse and trouble is supporting the club, you’re wrong,” Wilkinson says. “You couldn’t ignore (the rivalry) but we only played them twice in the league so we couldn’t let it dominate our thinking either. The other games were just as important.”
Ferguson is famous for muddying the merit of Leeds’ achievement by arguing that Manchester United threw first place away from a position of strength. Wilkinson, regardless, says there was lasting respect between them. Ferguson invited him to Old Trafford as his guest for a Europa League game last month. Back in the 1980s, he was calling Wilkinson to ask about the process of his eldest son gaining entry to the University of Sheffield. “In any profession you respect ability,” Wilkinson says. “If you don’t, you won’t grow. There was mutual respect between us, certainly.
“But as far as them losing the title goes, Bill Fotherby (Leeds’ managing director) introduced me to a saying early on: winners can laugh, losers can please themselves. In 100 years’ time, the history books will say ‘Leeds United, champions’.”
Certain games stand out for Wilkinson, aside from the obvious decisive moments: a 6-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough and a 4-1 defeat of Aston Villa on an afternoon when Chris Fairclough man-marked Tony Daley with aplomb. Villa were slaughtered. “The win over Villa ticked almost every box. We’d worked all week on our shape and if I had any IT expertise I’d look back at the game and analyse it again.
“People go on about high pressing these days but what we did that day was high pressing. Then again, at Sheffield Wednesday we were the first English team to play three at the back in the 1980s. Not everything’s new.”
At the death and with the title won, Wilkinson cut a reluctant hero, famously photographed at Elland Road alone and with the trophy dangling by his side after the last game against Norwich City. In the hours after Manchester United gave up the ghost on April 26, TV cameras descended on his house in Sheffield and found him speechless. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the media who would call me Mr Joviality – which, by the way, was a mistake on my part. You have to recognise that the media play a part and you have to deal with them. You have to make the media a friend rather than an enemy. But I can’t say I enjoyed the limelight.
“Of course there’s satisfaction and of course you join in. The night we won the title there was a huge celebration at our home. People turned up just because. It wasn’t planned and no-one was invited. I felt relief and, by that point, I was tired. That’s the truth – you’re very tired.”
Twenty five years later, Wilkinson is still standing as the last English coach to win English football’s biggest prize. His background and his vision makes you think that the game forgot too easily one of its own pioneers, moving on so quickly from 1992.
The Premier League was born that summer, drawing an unfortunate line in the sand. Are Wilkinson’s title-winners underrated? “I guess so,” Wilkinson says, “and from the players’ point of view, I think that’s disrespectful. But they’ve got the medal, they’re in the record books and what can any of us do about it anyway?
“As Kipling said, ‘God gave me the strength to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference’. In this instance, patience is what we need.”